Ex-adoptive mom refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo, center) and her dancer friends in Ema (Photos courtesy of Music Box Films)

By Richard Ades

“Whatever Lola wants…Lola gets.” Substitute the title character’s name for “Lola,” and that could be the theme song for Ema, the dance-fueled tale of a Chilean woman who has a knack for getting her way.

Well, not always. When the film begins, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer-husband Gaston (Mozart in the Jungle’s Gael Garcia Bernal) have lost their adopted son following a shocking incident. Young Polo (Cristian Suarez) had developed the bad habit of starting fires and had launched an attack on Ema’s sister that left her partially disfigured.

Now that Polo has been given up and adopted by a new set of parents, Gaston blames Ema for their loss by saying she encouraged the boy’s destructive habits. But Ema fights back with charges and insults of her own, such as calling her husband a “human condom” due to his biological inability to father a child of his own.

The resulting marital squabbles spill over into Gaston’s reggaeton dance troupe, threatening Ema’s position as a leading performer. Meanwhile, Ema loses her job teaching dance at Polo’s former school. The upshot is that she’s left with nothing—nothing, that is, except fierce determination and her uncanny ability to bend others to her will with the help of flirtation and, frankly, sex.

In other words, watch out.

The loss of their adopted child drives a wedge between Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Ema is directed and co-written by Pablo Larrain, who helmed 2016’s Jackie, a psychological study of Jacqueline Kennedy that I found cold and uninvolving. Whatever else you can say about Ema, it’s anything but cold. Indeed, its most indelible image, which appears in the first scene and reappears at key moments, is of the title dancer wielding a flame thrower that sends spectacular bursts of fire and destruction far into the distance.

As for uninvolving, maybe it is, at first. The frequent dance segments, as well as our uncertainty over whom we should be rooting for in the Ema-Gaston battle, make it hard to buy into the tale. But once Ema has nothing left to lose, Di Girolamo’s measured but smoldering portrayal makes it impossible to sit this one out.

You still may not know whether you should be rooting for Ema, but don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time for that discussion after Larrain presents us with his provocative final image.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Ema (rated R for language and sexual content) opens Aug. 20 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center, and will be available through VOD outlets beginning Sept. 14.

The forgotten man who championed unforgettable flicks

By Richard Ades

For people who became film aficionados during the 1960s and ’70s, Searching for Mr. Rugoff is a revelation. Such folks doubtless were intrigued by international filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Francois Truffaut, Lina Wertmuller and others, and the documentary reveals that their work might never have made it across the Atlantic if it weren’t for a New York theater owner and distributor named Donald Rugoff.

Full disclosure: I’m one of the many folks who owe my love of films to Rugoff.

Without him, I might never have held my breath over Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z or laughed at the French spy spoof The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe. I also might never have experienced the brilliant but polarizing films of Wertmuller or the head-scratching puzzle that was The Man Who Fell to Earth. Rugoff and his distribution company, Cinema 5, brought these and other notable flicks to the attention of American filmgoers, yet few people remember him.

Director and one-time Cinema 5 employee Ira Deutchman seeks to remedy that situation by talking to people who worked with Rugoff or otherwise knew him. The portrait he paints is of an eccentric man who wasn’t always easy to be around but who seemed to have an innate talent for finding and promoting important cinema.

After inheriting a theater chain following his father’s premature death, Rugoff began opening elegant Upper East Side theaters—“temples of the art,” one commentator calls them—that made going to the movies an indispensable cultural event. People looked forward to major premieres so much that they didn’t even mind standing in the inevitable line to get in. In fact, they savored it as just another part of the ritual.

Rugoff also became a distributor and began championing a host of notable filmmakers, some of whom are interviewed by Deutchman. Costa-Gavras talks about the role Rugoff played not only in bringing his masterful Z to America but in helping it to win two Academy Awards and three additional nominations, including for Best Picture. Wertmuller likewise talks about her experiences with the impresario, who may have helped her to garner the first Oscar nomination ever received by a woman director (for 1975’s Seven Beauties).

We learn that Rugoff had both box office triumphs, such as 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and flops, such as Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964). But whether the films were hits or misses, he always promoted them with ad campaigns that were groundbreaking and innovative. They were also sometimes controversial, as when he falsely labeled 1977’s Jabberwocky a Monty Python film because its director and star were members of the British comedy troupe.  

Rugoff’s success eventually faded, though the documentary can only suggest possible reasons. Was it health problems that impaired his judgment, or possibly a second wife who pushed her own questionable taste in films? Or maybe it was a change in the cinematic climate, along with the rise of competitors inspired by his example. Chances are it was a combination of causes.

At any rate, Rugoff ultimately was forced to exit the business. In 1986, he left New York and moved to a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, where he converted a former church into a movie theater before dying three years later. But even there, Deutchman learns, he’s been largely forgotten.

Someone who played such a crucial role in our country’s cinematic scene really deserves to be honored and remembered. With the release of Searching for Mr. Rugoff, maybe he will be.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Searching for Mr. Rugoff opened Aug. 13 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.

Nicolas Cage wants his pig back

The reclusive Rob (Nicolas Cage) is forced to return to society after his truffle-hunting pig is kidnapped.

By Richard Ades

Rob leads a quiet life in rural Oregon sharing a cabin and hunting for truffles with his foraging pig. Then, one night, someone breaks in and steals the pig. What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

That’s partly because Pig, the debut feature by Michael Sarnoski, stars Nicolas Cage as grizzled recluse Rob. Repeatedly spoofed by SNL for appearing in over-the-top flicks in which everything’s on fire and “all the dialogue is either whispered or screamed,” Cage has the reputation of being an explosion waiting to happen.

Sarnoski uses that image, along with the setup of a typical revenge film, to keep viewers in a state of anticipation. What will the hulking Rob do when faced with someone who stands between him and his beloved sow?

As it turns out, he never does quite what we expect him to do. Neither does the film as a whole, which may disappoint fans of the star’s more outrageous outings but should please those with subtler tastes.   

The beginning scenes set up Rob’s key relationships. Settling down for the night after a day of truffle hunting, he starts to play a birthday greeting tape-recorded by his deceased lover, Laurie, but finds it too painful to hear. “I’m OK,” he insists when his concerned pig tries to comfort him.

But the most important relationship, as well as the most problematic, is between Rob and Amir (Alex Wolff), the Camaro-driving entrepreneur who drops by every Thursday to deliver those valuable truffles to high-class eateries in nearby Portland. Rob spurns Amir’s attempts to show concern for his well-being, but he brusquely demands the younger man’s help after his beloved pet is kidnapped. Together, they set off for the city, where Rob reveals unexpected knowledge of the restaurant scene and Amir reveals his prickly relationship with the industry’s ruthless kingpin, Darius (Adam Arkin).

Not everything in the script (co-written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block) is logical or even believable. Particularly jarring—like a holdover from one of Cage’s tackier flicks—is a fight club of sorts that caters to disgruntled restaurant employees. More satisfying are the satirical barbs aimed at pretentious elements of West Coast culture. An enjoyable example is Rob’s interrogation of a chef (David Knell) who concocts trendy “deconstructed” fare but would rather be running his own English-style pub.

Through it all, Cage effectively plays against what’s become his type as the quietly resolute Rob, while Wolff keeps us equally off-balance with his portrayal of the hot-tempered but stubbornly loyal Amir. Their chemistry helps to sell a psychological study that builds slowly and imparts crucial life lessons along the way.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Pig (rated R) can be viewed at select theaters and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Aug. 3.